Devil Doll – 50th anniversary review

A movie about a sinister ventriloquist and his even more sinister dummy – think there might be something strange, even supernatural, at work? You guessed right! But this time there’s a twist: the ventriloquist is also a mystical mesmerist, and the dummy is not some projection of his fragmented personality; it is actually…well, we’ll get into that. For now, let’s just say that, though not truly good, DEVIL DOLL is certainly strange and interesting.
Set in England, the story follows an American journalist by the name of Mark English (William Sylvester).  The weirdness of the film becomes immediately apparent: an American named English – working in England? Is there a point, or was that simply the screenwriter’s idea of a joke (get it – he’s American but he’s English!)? Anyway, Mark English is unhappy with his latest, trivial assignment: covering the act of a ventriloquist known as the Great Vorelli (Bryant Haliday). At least Mark is unhappy until he sees the act: rather than the usual comedy high jinks, Vorelli and his dummy, Hugo, engage in an antagonist banter whose tension seems palpable – as if ready to explode into violence at any minute.

Hugo attacks Magda, who keeps her breasts hidden in the original cut.
Hugo attacks Magda, who keeps her breasts hidden in the original cut.

Eager to learn more, Mark talks girlfriend Marianne Horn (Yvonne Romain, of Hammer Films’ THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF) into inviting Vorelli to entertain at a party her family is giving. That night, Mark is awakened by Hugo, who mutters, “Help me.” Unsure whether this was dream or reality, Mark nevertheless checks out Vorelli’s background and learns that years ago he had an assistant named Hugo, who died on stage during their act. Meanwhile, Vorelli has set his eyes on Marianne; after Magda, Vorelli’s current assistant, objects, Hugo kills her. Seeking to unravel Vorelli’s secret and hopefully put a stop to his designs on Marianne, Mark eventually concludes that transferred Hugo’s soul into the dummy, where it remains under Vorelli’s control. If Hugo were ever to regain his free will – say, while Vorelli were distracted or asleep – there would be hell to pay…
Although deliberately created to replicate the eerie quality of the ventriloquist’s dummy episode from DEAD OF NIGHT (1945), this black-and-white English production works tolerably well as a crude rip-off, thanks to a creepy dummy and an even creepier performance from Haliday as The Great Vorelli. The innovation here is that Vorelli is not only a ventriloquist but also a hypnotist who casts a spell over Marianne. Unfortunately, this Svengali-esque subplot sends the narrative down a detour that ultimately leads nowhere, since the real story is about the mystery of Hugo.
Fortunately, the story eventually gets back on track for a reasonably exciting climax, which is nonetheless marred by completely side-lining nominal protagonist Mark, who doesn’t really do anything to resolve the story. Yes, Hugo must have his revenge, but couldn’t Mark lend a hand – perhaps unlock the cage in which Vorelli imprisons Hugo while sleeping? (And while we’re on the subject: when Hugo gets out of his cage to ask for Mark’s help, why didn’t he take that opportunity to get even with Vorelli?)
Vorellia (Bryant Haliday) performs with Hugo.
Vorellia (Bryant Haliday) performs with Hugo.

DEVIL DOLL suffers from a problem that sometimes appears in these ventriloquist dummy movies: the Great Vorelli’s act is not that great. Sure, we in the film audience enjoy the tension between the ventriloquist and his dummy, but there is not much humor to amuse the stage audience we see on screen. Vorelli’s hypnotism shtick is not much better: when he presses Marianne into dancing on stage, we are supposed to be amazed at what his mesmeric influence has achieved, but her dance moves are – to put it diplomatically – not at all impressive.
Haliday does not bring much subtlety to the role, no attempt to humanize Vorelli or generate any sympathy; instead, he goes full-on sinister, somewhat in the vein of Todd Slaughter, though without the mirthless humor. In one eccentric touch, Vorelli’s Svengali-like appearance is enhanced by a not entirely convincing beard. Except for a few flashbacks to his younger days, he is always seen wearing it, whether performing or not, suggesting it is not part of his stage makeup. But in his back stage scene with Magda, we see him applying the beard in a mirror – finally justifying its phony appearance.  (Since this seen is missing from the Continental version, that cut of the film asks viewers to accept the facial hair as genuine – which strains credibility almost as much as believing in a talking dummy.)
There is a sleazy aura to the film – not only in the Continental version, which adds gratuitous nudity, but also in the original narrative, which has English more or less date-rape his reluctant girlfriend in a car (she clearly resists, but he presses on regardless) and then pimp her off to Vorelli in the hope getting a good newspaper article about the famous entertainer.
Fortunately, the on-stage tension between Vorelli and Hugo lends an interesting edge to the proceedings, and the bizarre climax (a physical fight between the two opponents) is both laughably funny and oddly disturbing, leading to a final fade out in which the villain gets what he deserves: Vorelli, now speaking in Hugo’s voice, tell Mark, “The tables have turned,” while the dummy, in Vorelli’s voice, begs, “Mr. English, don’t let him get away with it! I am the Great Vorelli!”
By now we know that expecting Mark English to actually do anything is hopelessly optimistic, so the film simply freeze-frames on the dummy. As far as we know, Mark doesn’t get the girl, which is only fair, since he did nothing to save her, and she really is better off without him.
Vorelli selects a female audience member to perform a striptease - a gratuitous scene only in the Continental
Vorelli selects a female audience member to perform a striptease - a gratuitous scene only in the Continental

The Continental version of DEVIL DOLL, available on DVD, is even worse, short-changing the narrative to shoe-horn in a nude scene: The dialogue exchange in which Magda threatens to expose Vorelli is deleted, removing his motivation to have Hugo murder her. Instead, we see another performance by Vorelli, in which he mesmerizes a female audience member into doing a strip-tease (though dressed in a modest business suit, she is wearing lingerie appropriate for a nude dance). Otherwise, the differences between the original version and the Continental version are minimal: the credits are different (William Sylvester receives top billing instead of Bryant Haliday), and two scenes are reshot to include topless views of actresses who were covered up in the original. In the first, Magda’s breast is briefly exposed before Hugo attacks her. In the second, a colleague of Mark’s is seen in talking to him on the phone, while a woman (presumably his lover) hoovers in the background; for the Continental version, her bra is removed.
Though our usual inclination is to assume that the version with the most footage is the preferred version, in this case producer Richard Gordon (in a DVD audio commentary) confirms that the original British version – sometimes called the International version – is the official cut. The extra and alternate footage in Continental version was added just for those territories whose distributors required nudity to sell a horror picture.
William Sylvester and Yvonne Romain in DEVIL DOLL
William Sylvester and Yvonne Romain in DEVIL DOLL

Lindsay Shonteff directed DEVIL DOLL for producer Richard Gordon, who was responsible for several productions of this type during this era (CORRIDORS OF BLOOD, ISLAND OF TERROR). Ronald Kinnoch and Charles F. Vetter (under the pen names George Barclay and Lance Z. Hargreaves) wrote the screenplay, based on a short story by Frederick E. Smith. Star William Sylvester went on to appear in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968).
DEVIL DOLL earned the dubious honor of appearing on an episode of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, for which it was well suited. Good-looking enough to be interesting but absurd enough to deserve derision, the film was a perfect foil for the crew of the Satellite of Love. If you are on the fence about whether or not to see the film, MST3K version should end your indecisiveness.
Note: DEVIL DOLL is not to be confused with the Tod Browning film THE DEVIL DOLL (1939), starring Lionel Barrymore.
Devil Doll 1964DEVIL DOLL (Gordon Films and Galaworld Film Productions, 1964). Produced by Richard Gordon and Kenneth Rive. Directed by Lindsay Shonteff. Screenplay by Ronald Kinnoch and Charles F. Vetter, based on a story by Frederick E. Smith.  Richard Gordon. Cast: Bryant Haliday, William Sylvester, Yvonne Romain, Sandra Dorne, Nora Nicholson, Alan Gifford, Karel Stepanek, Francis De Wolff.

The Living Skeleton (1968) review

This early example of a Japanese kaidan (ghost story) with a contemporary setting begins strong but gradually devolves into stupidity, as the scenario figuratively rips itself to shreds with a series of increasingly ridiculous plot twists. In a way, THE LIVING SKELETON (Kyuketsu Dokuro-Sen) prefigures the worst aspects of Italian thrillers from subsequent decades, in which gratuitous shocks and surprises overruled logic. The result is too big a mess to be considered good, but it is interesting and occasionally effective. Curiously, the film hailed from Shochiku Eiga, a company more known for respectable dramas than exploitation horror.

Do not expect to see this scene in the movie!
Do not expect to see this scene in the movie!

The first thing you need to know about the story of THE LIVING SKELETON is that it contains no living skeleton (despite a publicity shot of said skeleton menacing a screaming damsel). Call me pedantic, but things like this matter – especially when this glaring omissions serves as a synecdoche for the entire film, which promises much that is never delivered.
THE LIVING SKELETON begins with a prologue in which pirates (including, apparently, members of the crew) kill everyone on board a freighter ship named Dragon King, including a screaming woman begging for mercy from the visibly scarred Tanuma. Three years later, we find Saeko (Kikko Matsuoka) living with a Father Akashi (Masumi Okada). Why is a young, attractive, unmarried woman living alone with a Catholic priest? There is some vague lip-service dialogue about this, but it explains nothing – our first hint that something is seriously wrong with the screenplay.
Saeko is the twin sister of Yoriko (also Matsuoka), who was the woman we saw in the prologue – now presumed dead, since no one knows what happened to the freighter. Saeko, however, gets a premonition that her sister is alive; during a storm, she takes a small boat out to see, accompanied by her boyfriend Mochizuki (Yasunori Irikawa); when the boat overturns, Mcohizuki heads back to shore while Saeko ends up aboard the Dragon King, which has returned like a ghost ship in the fog. (And yes, you read that right: Mochizuki leaves his girlfriend in the ocean, not knowing whether she drowned; he remains pretty much this useless for the rest of the film.)
Saeko sees her dead sister in a cabin, then later shows up on shore, before disappearing again. While Mochizuki and the priest look for her, the former pirates begin dying mysteriously, after glimpsing an apparition of the dead Yoriko – or is it in fact Saeko, possessed by her dead sister?
To savor the full flavorful range of silliness that is THE LIVING SKELETON, you really need to have the ending spoiled for you. Here goes…
How has Doctor Nishizato survived three years?
How has Doctor Nishizato survived three years aboard a ghost ship?

Eventually, Saeko confesses to Father Akashi, who tosses off a Biblical quotation suggesting she should be merciful. That night, in a genuinely shocking scene, Tanuma strangles Saeko, disrobes her, and hides her body in a suit of armor. It turns out that Father Akashi is actually Tanuma, his scarred face hidden beneath makeup. Tanuma and the remaining members of his gang head out to the Dragon King, where they encounter Doctor Nishizato (Ko Nishimura), Yoriko’s husband, who – despite having been apparently shot ead in the prologue – has been living aboard the Dragon King for the ensuing three years, during which time he has invented very potent acid, which he uses on one of the pirates, melting him down to a soggy mess. Tanuma escapes the doctor but finds Noriko’s corpse holding fast to his ankle.
Saeko shows up (a ghost, presumably, though the script is vague here) and tells Tanuma that Doctor Nishizato had been injecting his own blood into Yorkio’s corpse in an attempt to bring her back to life. (How she knows this is a mystery.) Tanuma tries to escape, but he too falls into a puddle of Nishizato’s acid, which melts him and the floor, eventually eating through the hull of the ship, which starts to sink. Mochizuki arrives to rescue Saeko (one supposes he never noticed her body in the suit of armor), but she apologetically knocks him overboard and goes down with the ship.
Well, that was fun…
The Living Skeleton Underwater SkeletonsTHE LIVING SKELETON is loaded with fascinating supernatural elements that are gradually squelched by the narrative nonsense. Saeko’s psychic connection with her murdered sister and the reappearance of the Dragon King set up wonderful anticipation of encroaching revenge from beyond the grave, and the subsequent deaths are cleverly handled in an ambiguous fashion, leaving us to wonder whether it is Yoriko or Saeko who is responsible. However, when Saeko confesses, the story starts to fall apart: she claims to be responsible for murdering four people, but one jumped to his death after seeing her, and another drowned when he became entangled in chains binding several skeletons (presumably of the pirates’ dead victims) under the ocean.
How Saeko is supposed to have affected that death, we are left to determine for ourselves, which renders the “rational” explanation unsatisfactory. Moreover, the murders are generally presaged by omens of the supernatural: bats (of the rubbery flapping genus indigenous to cinema, first encountered on the Dragon King) flap ominously on screen, as if accompanying Saeko/Noriko; and the ghost ship (rendered in moody miniatures not that are not necessarily convincing but are usually somewhat effective) is frequently seen floating through the fog, a harbinger of doom. If Saeko is committing the murders without assistance from her sister’s spirit, these visual motives must be completely coincidental.
Narrative problems multiply with the revelation of Tanuma’s identity. Is this the way a murderous pirate enjoys his ill-gotten gains – three years of celibacy under the same roof with an attractive single woman? The scenario passes up potentially interesting material by playing the deception as a ruse with no clear motivation, instead of suggesting that perhaps Tanuma really was trying to atone for his sins. Also, the possible spiritual conflict between a traditional, vengeful Japanese ghost, and a religion that preaches forgiveness of one’s enemies, is short-circuited when the representative of said religion turns out to be a crook in disguise.
Ghost girl or living corpse? You decide.
Ghost girl or living corpse? You decide.

As frustrating as these problems are, THE LIVING SKELETON truly falls apart with the appearance of Dr. Nishizato, who has somehow survived alone for three years on an unmanned ship that has never been sighted by ghost guard. As if that were not enough, his shipboard office serves quite nicely as a mad scientist’s lab, with enough facilities to create a new acid and make at least some headway toward resurrecting the dead. We also have to assume he propped up Yoriko’s corpse so that Saeko could see it standing in a cabin when she boarded the ship earlier in the film. Why? To inspired Saeko to seek revenge? Who knows?
As if realizing the disappointing nature of this “rational” explanation, THE LIVING SKELETON finally gives us what must be a ghost, when Saeko reappears after her death. Even here, the film stumbles, as Tanuma does not seem particularly perturbed over being confronted by the woman he strangled to death. At least Saeko’s revenge gives the audience some small sense of satisfaction in an otherwise frustrating film.
Visually, THE LIVING SKELETON is impressive. The black-and-white photography captures the seaside atmosphere, creating a cinematic world in which we accept the (apparent) machinations of the supernatural. The first few deaths are handled with nice ambiguity, and the underwater skeletons are reasonably spooky, even if their design (which includes various facial expressions etched into bony skulls) is more bizarre and whimsical than genuinely frightening. The score uses plucked instruments, recorded with lots of reverb, to interesting effect, adding a modern tone to the old-fashioned spook scenes.
Don't expect to find mercy in these eyes.
Don't expect to find mercy in these eyes.

There are occasionally impressive visual flourishes, such as the pleading Yorko’s face reflected in Tanuma’s sunglasses (which has the added benefit of disguising his face, so that we do not recognize him as Father Akashi later). When Yoriko’s corpse grasps Tanuma’s leg, the gesture recaptures a similar moment when she begged for her husband’s life, emphasized by a brief flashback-cut – letting us know his karma has come back to haunt him, literally.
One must give THE LIVING SKELETON some credit for audacity if not good judgment, taking what initially looks like a traditional ghost story and transforming it into horrific exploitation sleaze. Not only do we get a gratuitous night club scene, in which female dancers jiggle, and jiggle, and then jiggle some more; we also get two gruesome acid deaths! The first stage of disintegration is laughably bad (a matte to superimpose the spreading decay on top of the actor’s face), but once the physical effects take over, the visceral impact is surprisingly effective within the context of what initially seemed to be an atmospheric ghost story. Who needs the subtle scares of a vengeful spirit, when you can melt a body down into a big gloppy mess? (Perhaps the film’s title refers to the victims not being quite dead as their flesh starts to melt from their bones?)
Kikko Matsuoka
Kikko Matsuoka

Truly, the best reason to see THE LIVING SKELETON is Kikko Matsuoka in her dual role as Saeko and Yoriko. She conveys an inner sense of tragedy from the beginning that does more than the script to make her eventual doom seem like an integral part of the story; her lovely face invites sympathy even while it is capable of registering in a more sinister light in her Yoriko persona. Unfortunately, the narrative shoves her aside too much, first when the focus shifts to the deaths of the former pirates, and then when Saeko is killed and Nishzato takes over as the film’s locus of horror. Nevertheless, her two deaths scenes (first at the hands of Tanuma, then on the sinking ship) engage our emotions – quite an achievement in a film that otherwise subordinates drama to shock effects.
Click to purchase in the CFQ Online Store.
Click to purchase in the CFQ Online Store.

Ultimately, THE LIVING SKELETON is a frustration experience that promises something much finer than it delivers. There is some camp entertainment in watching the filmmakers carelessly toss their ghost story overboard to make room for a mad doctor movie, but you wish they had finished the film they started, and saved the acid bath for another production
THE LIVING SKELETON is one of four horror and/or science fiction films made by Shochiku in 1967 and 1968, along with THE X FROM OUTER SPACE; GOKE, BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL; and GENOCIDE. All four are available in the Criterion box set Eclipse Series 37: When Horror Came to Shochiku. They can also be streamed on Hulu Plus, which has a deal with Criterion for these and several other Japanese ghost stories, such as YOTSUYA KAIDAN (1959).
Ghostly goodness marred by medical malpractice.
The Living Skeleton poster
THE LIVING SKELETON (Kyuketsu Dokuro-Sen, 1968). Shochiku Eiga. 81 mins. Unrated. Directed by Hiroshi Matsuno. Written by Kyuzo Kobayashi, Kikuma Shimoizaka. Cast: Kikko Matsuoka, Yasunori Irikawa, masumi Okada, Asao Uchida, Asao Koike.

Dracula's Daughter (1936) review

DRACULA’S DAUGHTER, the last of the first wave of classic horror from Universal Pictures in the 1930s, never established itself as a fan favorite, yet it has come to be highly regarded in some circles (particularly those interested in finding homoerotic undertones in mainstream commercial pictures). Upon recenti viewing, the film turns out to be more entertaining than remembered, but it’s still wildy overrated. Its reputation rests mostly on one suggestive, implied lesbian scene, which is actually pretty good, but then you have to sit through the rest of the movie, which has a bit of trouble linking vampire Countess Maria Zaleski to Count Dracula. Zaleski claims to be Dracula’s daughter at one point, but she also has childhood memories of her mother playing soothing harpsicord music. So she was Dracula’s daughter by a human mother? She had a normal happy childhood before her father…what? Bit her?
And don’t get me started talking about the male lead, a psycho-therapist who thinks he’s curing a patient of a mental disease when in reality she’s a vampire. Gloria Holden is good as the Countess; the reliable Edward Van Sloan is back as Van Helsing (in a greatly reduced role), and Irving Pichel is fun in the Renfield role (more or less). He’s bit mouthy and arrogant for a mere mortal serving an undead countess, mocking her attempts to overcome her vampire’s curse.
Typically, the film never explains the obvious question: Why does she put up with him?

Copyright 1994 Steve BIodrowski